Say the Right Thing

You're called upon for an opinion of a friend who is extremely lazy. You don't want to lie --- but you also don't want to risk losing even a lazy friend.

Try this line: "In my opinion," you say as sincerely as you can manage, "you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."

This gem of double meaning is the creating of Robert Thornton, a professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.

Thornton was frustrated about an occupational hazard for teachers, having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications, so he put together an arsenal of statements that can be read two ways.

He calls his collection the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations. Or "LIAR", for short.

"LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate while allowing the candidate to believe that it is high praise," Thornton explained last week.

Some examples from LIAR:

To describe a person who is totally inept: "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."

To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow workers: "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."

To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left unfilled: "I can assure you that no person would be better for the job."

To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration: "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment."

To describe a person with lackluster credentials: "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

Thornton pointed out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships, but it also can help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.

In most states, he noted, job applicants have the right to read the letters of recommendations and can even file suit against the writer if the contents are negative.

When the writer uses LIAR, however, "whether perceived correctly or not by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof," Thornton said.




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